Friday, December 09, 2005

Losing The Idea Wars

Upon the completion of her first viewing of Errol Morris' tremendous documentary, 'The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara,' a good friend of mine quipped, "you know, every time America declares war on an idea, we seem to lose. We're much better at declaring war on nations."

That notion struck a cord with me. We, as Americans, have been listening to elected/appointed officials telling us about their Idea Wars since long before I was born. The McCarthy era saw a systematic 'War on Communism' both at home and abroad. Lyndon Johnson famously declared war on ignorance, illiteracy, poverty, disease, tyranny, and aggression, all in the same speech (in fact, he declared war on all of these within the space of four sentences). Nixon (and later, Reagan) had their War on Drugs, and today, Bush has the War on Terror and the much-less-advertised War on Pornography. Out of all of these, the war on illiteracy strikes me as the only one we can say we've won on the home front. Everything else has been a failure to some degree or another.

What's troubling about the American mentality in this respect is that, for some reason (possibly being on the victorious sides of both World Wars), we have this sense of invulnerability, like we can't lose wars. Vietnam was a tremendous shock to the American consciousness precisely because, with half-a-million troops and the full brunt of our military arsenal deployed, we still couldn't seem to win. It was the first time in modern history that America had to accept that it had lost a war. But its short memory seems to have largely healed that wound, and now, we've had our sense that we can win anything restored, even as its being frayed around the edges by the fear that Iraq could prove to be another Vietnam.

In truth, the actual wars in Iraq and Vietnam are not all that different from the disastrous conceptual wars wags here at home. The Wars on Drugs, Terror, and Porn were all born of small-minded and simplistic visions of reality, and were implemented accordingly, each more so than the last. The War on Drugs did serve to reduce the flow of certain narcotics (mainly opiates), it did not stop the increased proliferation of *any* other drugs, mainly serving to raise the price of narcotics and thus the profits of drug cartels, just as Prohibition had beforehand. Today, the most severe drug-related problems in the country arise from crystal meth, a drug manufactured right here at home (rather than being grown overseas), making much of the expensive infrastructure built by the federal government ineffective in stopping its proliferation.

The War on Terror, as we are increasingly seeing, was born out of the overeager willingness of entire swaths of the country to believe anything was possible in the wake of 9/11. The extent to which genuine deception was intermixed with naive credulity on the part of our leaders is not relevant to the point I am trying to make - the problem I'm addressing lies with the people themselves, who fearful as they were, threw their support behind policies stripping them of many of their hard-earned rights because they weren't willing to question those with apparent moral authority. Adam Curtis goes even further, in his documentary "The Power of Nightmares," just recently released as a film in the states. Not only, Curtis argues, is our reaction to the threat overlarge, it is a reaction to a threat that largely does not exist. His well-defended thesis is that, while terrorism exists, there is no global network of terrorists, employing sleeper cells and invading our technological infrastructure. There never was. The "moral compromises" made in cases like Guantanamo Bay represent not necessary sacrifices, but delusional and criminal policies, according to this view.

Today's stealthy War on Porn is the latest in this line. Like most Idea Wars, it began with noble premise of eradicating child porn, and rose to prominence in no small part because of Operation Predator. At its heart, Operation Predator was a joint project between the FBI and the ICE (immigration & customs enforcement) to bring to justice child pornographers and child porn distributors. Its most famous tactic involves masquerading as fellow child porn enthusiasts in chat rooms and other online communities to lure out other sexual predators, and get them to reveal enough about themselves to nail them. And in this light, Operation Predator has been an unbridled success, lauded by liberals and conservatives alike as lean, efficient, and thoroughly modern. With this success, however, came the naive assumption of a mandate, and now puritanical legislation and policy implementation are beginning to permeate the system.

The War on Porn is not going to be a source of wild social strife in the way that the Wars on Drugs and Terror. At most, a handful of fringe groups will have their livelihoods undermined, while the rest of the porn industry finds itself jumping through more legal hoops. And in this respect, I'm not disdainful of the War on Porn because I think Porn is a God-given right. It annoys me because it is motivated by the simplistic notion that Porn Is Bad and that Bad Things Can Be Eliminated From Society. These are the sort ideologue daydreams that get us in trouble.

It's ironic, to me, that the triumph of modern Conservatism came with its wholesale rejection of "realism," exchanged instead for a volatile mixture of corporate relativism, fundamentalism, and rhetorical dogma. It is not a comforting thing for people to ride to power on the wave of ignorance, feeding the swell and remaining on its crest for years on end. In what seems like the inevitable battle between blind faith and bitter cynicism, I can't say I see things getting better altogether soon, either. It's going to be an uphill battle.


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